What It’s (Really) Like To Move From Print To Digital

Print: Love At First Write

From the time my tiny hand could grasp a pencil, I wanted to be a magazine editor. To me, it was the most glamorous, dynamic, interesting job in the world, and I structured my entire education around achieving the goal of one day becoming one. I focused my energy into English classes in high school, spending extra time on any and all writing assignments, sometimes even doing more than what we were actually assigned—like extra credit without the actual credit (nerdy, I know). I chose a college (University of Colorado) because it was one of the few that offered a creative writing major, one that you had to apply to separately and be accepted into. I focused on creative writing as opposed to a more traditional journalism major because I wanted to make sure my writing skills were honed for real stories—long-form, beautifully thought out, well-reported tales that took the reader on a journey, an adventure or through an experience.

Photo: Adam Katz Sinding

During the summers of college I lived in New York City to do internships. I applied for one of the coveted positions at Rolling Stone an entire year in advance, which I then got and did both for a summer and then again over winter break. When I moved to Aspen post college, I walked myself into Aspen Magazine, handing my resume to the person at the reception desk, asking to be considered for any opening that might come along (clearly this was long before LinkedIn). Ironically, it was the associate publisher who ended up giving me a chance: She let me write copy for the advertising-focused guides they produced, which eventually led to me getting a position as the editorial assistant. I moved up quickly to associate editor and ultimately senior editor when I was just 26. The Editor-in-Chief entrusted me and my co-senior editor with a lot of the workload of putting together the magazine from start to finish, so we learned everything there was to know—from building a runlist, to acquiring the finest freelancers, to working with the art and design team to copy-editing, fact-checking and the slew of other, less-than-glamorous details that go into getting a printed publication out the door.

Years and a move to LA later, I found myself in my first Editor-in-Chief role at the head of Los Angeles Confidential, another luxury lifestyle magazine. After three-and-a-half years there I moved on to my second Editor-in-Chief position, this time at a small, younger-geared fashion-meets-lifestyle magazine called FOAM (fashion, outdoors, art, music), where I—at least in my opinion—did my best, most creative work. But it was a small, indie publication, owned by a parent company that specialized in super-niche titles. Eventually, putting out a fashion magazine was no longer a business they wanted to be in. And that’s when I became a statistic.

Me at the FOAM office on the day we cleaned it out (and before we painted over the logo).

I knew the print world was in a volatile place; I do not live under a rock. Admittedly, I had lost more than a few night’s sleep wondering if staying in print was putting a nail in my career’s coffin, but I loved it and I was good at it, and it’s hard to push yourself out of your comfort zone when you still truly enjoy what you do. Until your magazine closes one day—and just like that, you’re no longer left with a choice.

The April 2013 issue of FOAM.

In Good Company

In the last several years, countless respected print editors have made the move into digital, many of them taking the values and lessons they learned while on staff at a magazine and infusing them into their new projects. One such success story is the cult-favorite fashion site Jean Stories, started by Vogue alums Florence Kane and Jane Bishop. “As a writer, it was about having to learn a new style and to be more nimble,” says Kane of the transition from print to digital. “I had pretty formal training at Vogue—you would turn in a story sometimes weeks before the issue closed, and it would go through several rounds of editing, copy-editing, etc. So many eyes were on it, which was an incredible way to learn from others. With digital, things are so much faster, spontaneous and casual. And, for the most part, copy is shorter; you’ve got less time to make your point, so you better do it clearly and quickly!”

Florence Kane, cofounder and Editorial Director of Jean Stories. Photo: Taylor Jewell

Kane’s Jean Stories cofounder Jane Bishop spent six-and-a-half years at Vogue before a stint at Gap Inc. and then becoming the online editor at The New York TimesT magazine. “The transition was hard; I was out of my element,” says Bishop, whose father is Ron Herman of the iconic LA boutiques of the same name. “I didn’t feel confident in my role. I knew a good story when I saw one, but there were so many different things I had to learn—the sheer workload was overwhelming. But I knew I wasn’t the only editor who was thrown into the fire: If we were going to evolve into this brand-new word of digital, we were all figuring it out together. Then you get the hang of it, and social media enters the market, and you have to adjust again. It’s a constantly shifting landscape—there is always something else to learn.”

Irene Edwards, executive editor of online lifestyle and home décor magazine Lonny , says she realized she wanted to be a magazine editor in the eighth grade. She came to the top position at Lonny a little more than two years ago after having been the special projects editor at Travel + Leisure. “I was completely intimidated by analytics, and I understood very little about social media,” says Edwards. “But I knew I needed to get digital experience pretty quickly, or I would be pigeonholed in my industry. I had an old-school editor’s reliance on gut instinct, focus groups, etc. Looking back, I can’t believe how steep my learning curve was. I knew how to run a team, I knew how to edit a story and how to work with beautiful images and design. Everything else I do in my current role, I learned fast and on the job.”

The March 2015 issue of Lonny.

Indeed my own experience was similar to Edwards’. After my magazine closed, I was too scattered (and frankly heartbroken) to look for a permanent gig, and much like Edwards I knew that if I didn’t get a website on my resume fast, I was soon going to go the way of the cassette tape. As luck would have it, the Editorial Director of this very site, a veteran of fashion websites, was looking for someone to take over for her during her almost four-month maternity leave. I met with her and then interviewed with three other people, including our EIC Rachel Zoe, and was hired. Suddenly, I wasn’t only working at a website, I was heading up the editorial of one while simultaneously learning the new language of digital (I think Latin may have been an easier choice). I may or may not have cried on my way home for the entire first week—ok, first month. I was drowning in discussions of SEO, page-views, uniques, WordPress and so on, always trying to keep my head above water while also imparting some of my print values on the team here. I wanted to mentor them and grow their writing skills, encouraging them to be thoughtful in their approach to stories, even as they attempted to hit their weekly publishing goals. I knew I had valuable experience to bring to the table—that was, after all, likely why they hired me—but some days it was hard for me to remember what that was.

And then one day, almost out of the blue, I began to get it. Digital terms started to roll off my tongue without me even thinking about it. With every pitch and story, I thought about whether or not it would get us clicks, if the title was evocative enough, if it was packaged in the best way for page views, if it linked to other stories that kept our reader engaged, and so on and so on. Low and behold: I had become (or at the very least was becoming) a digital editor. And no one was more surprised about it than me. Perhaps even more surprising, I realized I liked it.

In print, you can work on a story for weeks, an issue for months, all the way belaboring over every word, image, caption and decision. When the issue finally makes its way into your hands, it almost feels like a work of art. (Ask most magazine editors and they’ll tell you they can’t even look at the issue once it finally comes out, the fear of even the slightest mistake too petrifying.) All of that and you never really even know who reads it. Sure, (if you’re lucky) people tell you they liked the issue, but it’s almost impossible to truly know the impact a particular story had.

On the contrary with digital, you work on a story (likely for far less hours) and then you can actually see how many people read it. Your hard work literally pays off in numbers. And that, for a print editor, feels foreign and—frankly—kind of glorious. “The advantage of online is being able to spread news and ideas much faster, even share them as they’re live,” says Kane. “The democratic nature of online is incredible—there are more voices being heard.” Bishop agrees that the Wild West that is the digital world is an exciting place to be. “There are no rules,” she says. “You can literally define for yourself what you want your site to be, and if you’re smart you can invent a completely new, innovative and creative way to sustain a business, it’s hard but really fun.”

Kane with her fellow Jean Stories cofounder Jane Bishop. Photo: Taylor Jewell

For Edwards, the transition from one medium to the other has been a lesson in business. “Moving to a digital job has shown me how to think about the future of media,” she says. “This experience has given me a healthy knowledge of how to think from a multiple-revenue-stream point of view. I’m fascinated by numbers and reports and can happily spend hours poring over them to inform my editorial direction. The opportunity to combine that knowledge with the timelessness of great storytelling in images and words is a gift. Now I would never embark on any kind of content initiative without doing a deep dive into data.”

Bishop, too, thinks the various business opportunities digital offers creates an exciting environment ripe for out-of-the-box ideas. “The way print media monetizes is pretty clear; it’s established and proven to work— there is a clear road map,” says Bishop, who, for the record, still works in print as the style director of Travel + Leisure, in addition to role with Jean Stories. “With a website, there are hundreds of different ways to monetize—some work and some don’t. Some work for some websites and not for others. People are always trying to figure it out; it’s open to interpretation and experimentation—open to creativity.” Edwards concurs that the current media climate is all about being malleable: “I think the most successful modern editors are those who meld editorial instincts with a keen interest in business strategy. That’s a relatively recent development, but I am sure it will continue.”

Lonny Executive Editor Irene Edwards. Photo: Virginia Rollinson/Lonny

Turning (Or Scrolling) The Page

In case you were wondering, when The Zoe Report Editorial Director returned, she and The Zoe Report team graciously asked me to stay on, developing an Editor-At-Large role for me that I love and that enables me to write long-form (dare I say print-esque) stories like this one for the site. The position also allows me to continue to work with the girls on their writing and story approach (making my print experience feel valuable), even as I continue to learn about the ins and outs of digital on a daily basis.

Anyone who knows or who has worked with me will tell you that I still, and probably always will, reference my time and experience in print with each story we develop in digital. The truth is this: I will always be a print editor in my heart—after all, I wanted to be one since there actually were cassette tapes—but today I am proudly and excitedly a digital one in my everyday life. And that’s just fine with me.

There’s a larger lesson, too, one that extends far beyond the journalism industry. As a mentor once said to me, “Did you really think your career wouldn’t take any left turns?” When she asked me that, I realized that I indeed did not. But some of those left turns have ended up taking me down the most interesting roads and have taught me far more than any straight path ever could have.

If there is one thing I have realized from the experience of working in both print and digital and even from putting together this story, it’s that you can take the girl out of print, but you can’t really take print out of the girl. And clearly I’m not the only one who feels that way. “Print was and always will be my first love,” says Edwards. “Don’t ever die, print. I love you always.” Well said.